What Is a Church?

One of the most essential questions of the missionary task is often left unanswered—to our detriment.

From Message magazine issue "'I Will Build My Church'"

Ours is an age at war with reality.

What is a man? What is a woman? Never have definitions mattered more. Christians, as followers of the Word made flesh (John 1:14), must be at home dealing in the realm of meaning.

How do we define a “church”? Ironically, this question is most contested within the church itself. (Even as I write this article at a public picnic table, a passerby noticed the title and began to interrogate me about how I defined the church.) Pastors and missionaries are no strangers to these debates either. Crucial ministry decisions hinge on such questions as, How much of what I consider to be essential to the church is just my own tradition? and, At what point does my evangelistic Bible study become a true church plant?

To further illustrate the importance of defining church: consider the experience of inviting a nominal Christian to your own Sunday service. Chances are you’ve heard, “I believe in Jesus, but I don’t need to attend your group to follow him.”

Most responses to this trope go something like, “But following Jesus is impossible to do alone. You need support, accountability, and encouragement. You need to be nurtured, to experience fellowship, and to serve in order to be sanctified.” This is all well and good. But this hypothetical fails to address what a church is, elevating instead what a church does for me. It is instrumental (concerning uses) rather than ontological (concerning being). We must instead start with God’s design for the corporate body of Christ.

The Apostle Paul issues us a critical declaration in Colossians 1:13: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (emphasis mine). Note the prepositions. By virtue of his delivering his people out of the realm of darkness, Christ necessarily also assimilates them into an alternative community, “a people for himself” (Titus 2:14). This people comes into being as the product of redemption itself. Christ as Savior is not out merely grabbing individual, atomized souls in a haphazard fashion. Rather, he is taking hold of souls to build his church (Matthew 16:15), assembling her stone by stone (1 Peter 2:5) and covenanting himself to her as her Husband (Revelation 19:7-9).

Considered in this light, the notion that an individual might belong to Christ but not to his church is as intelligible as that of a true Englishman existing entirely apart from a thing called England. As the third-century bishop Cyprian of Carthage wrote, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother.” If we belong to Christ, then we will of necessity be numbered among his people.

If the church is the global or catholic (meaning universal) community of the redeemed, then a church is a local expression of that community. (Ekklēsia, the Greek word translated “church,” means “assembly.”) The New Testament expectation and explicit command for believers is to congregate visibly (Hebrews 10:24-25). The London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) provides this helpful summary: “[T]he Lord Jesus calls out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father . . . Those thus called, he commands to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requires of them in the world” (26.5).

Of course, rarely in the course of a casual invitation to a Sunday service is there time to quote church fathers and historic confessions. In such cases, it helps to not only know what a church is but also what a church isn’t. A church is not just a Bible study, although churches study the Bible. A church is not just a group of believers enjoying camaraderie, although healthy churches engage in fellowship. A church is not even necessarily present when the word “church” officially appears on signage or founding documents, as it does in the case of many heretical cults. And a church is certainly not yet present when those gathering are unbelievers still developing an understanding of the gospel, among whom the Holy Spirit has not yet brought about repentance and faith.

The church is present when a fellowship of believers intentionally joins together under the preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s supper), and standards of membership or discipline, ordaining qualified pastor-elders to lead and deacons to serve. Though particular churches may be deficient in one or more of these areas for a season (e.g. practicing communion infrequently or surviving for a season without a pastor), these features mark a church in principle. A dog may have a docked tail or a dry nose, but in principle a dog is a thing which has a cold, wet nose and a wagging appendage.

Pastors and missionaries zealous for disciple making may, with noble intentions, simplify or even deconstruct aspects of church life to catalyze movements. This impulse is not altogether misguided and may represent an attempted correction to the stodgy institutionalism that can affect established churches. But our disciple-making efforts will fail to form healthy churches without due attention to the church’s God-given nature. We cannot score without aiming, and we cannot aim without a target.

In Revelation 2:5, Jesus threatened the Ephesian church with the removal of its candlestick—in essence, with being de-churched. Whatever it means to be de-churched, it follows that to be a church must be very precious indeed. Little wonder that Christians have all along confessed in the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in . . . the holy catholic church, the communion of saints[.]” Amen.